Top Five Friday: Summer Reads

Wrapping up my week of excitement for Lauren Willig’s new release, That Summer, I thought I would devote today’s list to summer books! Some of these books are set in the summertime, and some of them just seem like great choices to take to the beach.

lost lake 1. Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen. This is a great read about a young widow named Kate who takes her daughter Devin for a spontaneous and much-needed vacation to Lost Lake, GA. They meet a charming and eccentric cast of characters, most of whom have been spending their summers at Lost Lake for years. The cottages on the lake are owned by Kate’s aunt Eby, and when Kate realizes that Eby is planning to sell the place at the end of the season, she and the other vacationers know they’ve got a limited amount of time to change Eby’s mind.
 grown-up 2. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson. It may be best to let Joshilyn describe this book for you herself: “Every fifteen years, trouble comes after the Slocumb women. Now, as their youngest turns fifteen, a whole new kind of commotion is chasing all three generations. Mosey’s desperate to know who used their yard as a make-shift cemetery, and why. The oldest, forty-five year old Ginny, fights to protect Mosey from the truth, a fight that could cost Ginny the love of her life. Between them is Liza, silenced by a stroke, with the answers trapped inside her. To survive Liza’s secrets and Mosey’s insistent adventures, Ginny must learn to trust the love that braids the strands of their past—and stop at nothing to defend their future.” It’s a mystery and a coming-of-age story all wrapped into one. Also, the chapters written from Liza’s perspective were fascinating. This book feels summery because, thanks to the southern setting, there are lots of descriptions of hot days and sunshine.
 south of broad  3. South of Broad, by Pat Conroy. This was my first Pat Conroy novel, and I read it with my book club a few years ago. I keep meaning to go back to it. This is the story of Leopold Bloom King, the eclectic group of friends that he gathers in high school, and the ways that they continue to impact each other’s lives (for better or worse) twenty years after they graduate. Conroy’s publisher calls this book “a love letter to Charleston.” With all the references to the beach and Charleston life, this is a great summer book (although, perhaps not for you, Laney).
 forgotten garden  4. The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. This is (another) one of my favorite time-slip books. In modern England, Cassandra’s beloved grandmother Nell has passed away. Cassandra feels like she’s lost everything that matters to her, but then she finds that Nell has left her a book of strange and dark fairytales by Eliza Makepeace, a Victorian authoress who wrote this one book and then vanished. Cassandra decides that her best hope of getting her life back on track is to take her book of fairytales and revisit Nell’s past to answer the questions she’s always had about her family. A great read for any time of the year, but any book that has a garden as such a central feature feels distinctly summery.
 hundred summers 5. A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams. Lily Dane decides to spend the summer of 1938 with her family in the oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island. What Lily wants is rest and relaxation, but what she gets is a blast from the past: Nick and Budgie Greenwald. Budgie and Lily were best friends when they were girls, and Nick and Lily were a serious couple for a long time – until Budgie decided that she wanted him, too. Lily, Nick and Budgie stumble through a summer of awkward interactions, with Budgie trying to act like the past doesn’t exist and Nick doing his best to avoid both of them. Lily tries to understand Budgie’s betrayal and the many secrets that she’s hiding, unaware that a powerful hurricane is about to make a sudden and devastating landfall right in the heart of their town. No explanation necessary for why this one makes the list!


Happy Friday!

gods in Alabama


How can you put down a book that starts like this: “There are gods in Alabama.  I know because I killed one.”

When I read the back jacket of gods in Alabama, I got the impression that this book would be a story about Arlene Fleet, raised in Alabama but self-exiled to Chicago, returning home after ten years with her black boyfriend Burr in tow to attend her uncle’s retirement party.  It seemed like most of the conflict in the book was going to turn on the interracial relationship and how Arlene’s family would react to it.  What you actually get is a book split pretty evenly between present-day and flashbacks, with Joshilyn leading you in baby steps toward understanding the relationships that Arlene has with her Aunt Florence and her cousin Clarice.  It’s like a character study of Arlene, and it’s definitely a love story.  But it’s not a love story about Arlene and Burr – it’s a love story about Arlene and Aunt Florence.

When Arlene was a toddler living in Kansas with her parents, her father died and her mother Gladys lost her mind.  Because she’s recently lost a child herself, and because Arlene and Gladys are her family, Florence drives to Kansas, packs Arlene and Gladys into her truck, and moves them into her home in Alabama.  She talks the elementary school principal into putting Arlene in her daughter Clarice’s third-grade class even though Arlene ought to be in second.  She takes charge of Gladys’ painkiller addiction.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  Arlene grows up in respectful fear of Florence and total adoration of her beautiful, sweet cousin Clarice.  But by her sophomore year of high school, Arlene has decided that she has to leave Alabama when she graduates.  She doesn’t decide this because she’s unhappy or ungrateful – she makes a deal with God that she will never lie, never sleep with another boy, and never ever return to Alabama if God will just keep everyone from discovering that she killed Jim Beverly.

Joshilyn does a great job of tying the present-day and flashback stories together to help you understand exactly what would lead fifteen year old Arlene to murder Jim Beverly, the high school quarterback and every girl’s choice for a date to homecoming.  Arlene is a great character, and some of the best parts of the novel are the bits where she’s puzzling out her motives for the way she has behaved the past ten years.  She does love her family, and she loves Burr, but she’s been carrying around an impossible weight of guilt and fear that make it impossible for her to be as close to them as she wants.

Arlene is the main character and the narrator, but I would argue that Aunt Florence dominates her fair share of the story.  In her notes after the final chapter of book, Joshilyn says that people always assume she wrote Arlene as a version of herself, but she actually identifies more strongly with Aunt Florence.  She says that her children “are the sum total of my heart.  And sum total of my heart is even now, as I type this, out in the world wandering around, probably in traffic.  It’s unendurable.  How do we go through every day with them out there on their bikes, among snakes and lightning and mean kids and rabid squirrels and chaos theory and predators?”  Aunt Florence has this same fierce protectiveness and single-minded need to make the world a safe place for her daughter and Arlene.  Even when Arlene moves to Chicago and makes excuses about why she won’t come home for Christmases or birthdays, Aunt Florence calls her twice a week.  Arlene knows if she doesn’t answer the phone for those calls, Florence will get in the car and drive up to Chicago to find out why.  She may not live under Florence’s roof any longer, but Florence will never let her slip quietly out of the family.

This is my fifth book by Joshilyn Jackson, and there is something about her writing that is completely different from anyone else’s.  She writes these stories about Southern women and their crazy families and the terrifying things we are capable of doing to protect the people we love.  There were several unexpected twists at the end, but Joshilyn does such a great job setting you up for them that they don’t feel unrealistic.  I think my favorite of Joshilyn’s books is still A Grown-up Kind of Pretty, but this was an excellent story.